The Zoom H6 Field Audio Recorder

The Zoom H6 is one of your options for recording audio in the field, and it has a number of features that will enable you to perform the task at hand. First, a tour of the Zoom H6:

Photo 1: An overview image of the Zoom H6

There are A LOT of buttons and outlets on the H6. I’m not going to explain all of them because you aren’t going to use all of them. If you read the article that I linked above at the first mention of the Zoom H6, it will give you an overview of the recorder’s features. It may also make your head spin. Don’t panic.

Photo 1 by the numbers:

 1) The USB port. This should be familiar to all of you. The USB port on the Zoom is versatile and allows the user to do many things that I’m not going to worry you about, like control the unit from a computer. If you have a USB cable and a charger – like the one from your iPhone, for instance – you can plug the Zoom into an electrical outlet. This is a good idea when it is an option, because the Zoom H6 EATS BATTERIES. It is true: The four AA batteries inside won’t last particularly long – they are usually enough to power on for two to three of hours of life, especially when you are powering an external microphone from the unit – and you will be doing this often in the field. Luckily, I haven’t yet found that you pick up any hum in the recording from using an external power line – a common problem that you should look out for if you power with a plug.

2) Detachable microphone head. You aren’t really going to need this, but I am telling you anyhow. The Zoom allows you to attach different heads to the unit, giving you different built-in microphone options. There might be a time when you want to use one of the built-in microphones available, and I’ll demonstrate how they work in class. The built-in microphone corresponds with the “L” and “R” tracks labeled in number #4 (below). The standard “XY” microphones are particularly good for recording live music. For instance, if you are at such an event, mount the Zoom on a stand or tripod and have it record your ambient sound for the whole shoot and synchronize it later.

3) Audio level dial and XLR input. The Zoom is capable of recording up to six independent tracks simultaneously. At most, you will be recording two tracks, and perhaps three. As you will see in the photo below, you can plug a professional quality microphone into the Zoom using the 3-pin XLR style cable. The little dial labeled here is for adjusting your audio level – basically a volume control for your subject. You adjust your volume here and listen through headphones (plugged in at #5) and visually with the audio meter in the color display window (#6). See, this isn’t SO complicated!

4) Line selector buttons. By simply pressing one of these buttons, you are telling the Zoom which microphones it should listen to when monitoring or recording. If you are making a simple recording with one external attached microphone, here pictured going into line 1, then just hit the “1” button and a little red LED will light up to let you know it is connected. Press it again to shut it off, and the light will go out. It is that easy.

5) Headphone jack. This isn’t complicated. But know that you MUST use good studio headphones to make a serious recording in the field. The Studio has nice Sony MDR-7506 headphones for you to use. These are comfortable and have a good level of sound insulation. It is important for you to hear what the microphones are picking up ONLY.

6) Display screen. Use this to navigate your menus (you won’t do a lot of this) and, more importantly, visually check your audio levels. We’ll discuss how to adjust audio levels.

Front end and display of Zoom H6.

1) This numerical readout is what is called the “timecode” or the equivalent of a counter on an old tape deck. Important: if these numbers aren’t moving, the Zoom H6 is NOT recording anything. This does not mean that audio is not flowing through the headphones or through the line-out jack (#3). You do not have to record on the Zoom H6 when you film your interview if you are porting the audio to your camera, but it is not a bad idea to do so. If your videorecording should fail, you will at a minimum have audio of the interview. Moreover, the audio signal sent to the camera will be a mix of the tracks that you are recording. If you are recording through lines one and two only, this isn’t as big of a deal because the Zoom can be set to mix these as a Right and Left stereo pair. But throw a third microphone in there and you won’t be able to separate it from the camera’s 2-channel mixed audio track.

2) These are the aforementioned meter levels. The idea behind adjusting your audio level is to turn up the dial high enough so that your subject comes through on the monitor just a little but past the “-6” dB setting, but not topping out in the red. You will find that in picking up more volume that you also pick up more ambient hiss from things like air conditioning fans and the like. Lowering your audio level will not make these sounds go away. Just because you cannot hear them, doesn’t mean that they aren’t being recorded at lower levels. When  you boost volume in the computer, the hissing sound will come back. The only way you can reduce outside hissing noise is by using the Lo and High Cut filters that are buried in the menus on the Zoom. This is a little more sophisticated of a setting, and will be the topic of another blog post. I already have the Zoom set with a Lo Cut at 115 Hz on all tracks. (Don’t freak out if you don’t know what this means.)

3) This is the line-out port. You will use this jack to feed an audio signal to the camera’s microphone jack.

1) XLR/TRS audio inputs. This side of the unit shows you tracks three and four on the H6, but they are identical to inputs for track one and two on the other side of the Zoom. Note: ports 3 and 4 will mix as a stereo pair when recording.

2) Toggle/Navigation button. This rocker switch navigates through the menus on the H6, and it is pushed in to make a selection. In comparison with an iPhone, it is clunky and low-tech, but it works.

3) The Menu button. Not surprisingly, this button brings up the main menu. When you navigate in the menus, it serves as the “back” button, taking you a level backward in menu navigation.

Files on the Zoom H5/H6:

It is important to understand how the Zoom stores the audiorecordings you make. It is actually very simple but will drive you crazy if you aren’t aware of how it all works. The Zoom H6 is capable of recording six independent tracks (Left, Right, 1, 2, 3, and 4). The Zoom H5 is capable of recording four independent tracks (Left, Right, 1, and 2.) Left and Right are recorded as a stereo pair in the same track on both unites and so are tracks 3 and 4 on the H6. When you encounter the Left/Right files, they will be called ZOOM000x-St.WAV where “x” is the number of your recording. Lines one and two will be named ZOOM000x-Try.WAV where “x” is the recording number and “y” is the track or line number. On the H6, the stereo pair generated by lines 3 and 4 are named ZOOM000x-34.WAV, where “x” is the recording number.See the image of the Zoom’s folders below:

The file structure from the Zoom H6

You see that the Zoom H6 card is formatted with 9 folders. You probably won’t be using more than one folder unless you decide to go hunt through the menus on the Zoom and change the one that you are recording to. Chances are, everything you record will be found in “FOLDER01.” For each time you press “record” and “stop,” the Zoom will create a subfolder in the active folder (FOLDER01) called ZOOM001, ZOOM002, etc. Each of these subfolders contain the tracks that you recorded. In the image above, you can see that the “Start” and “Stop” button was pressed three different times, creating three different subfolders, each containing the Track 1 and Track 2 WAV files plus an instruction file.